Monday, August 24, 2015

Ozymandias did know how to party, but I don't see him bringing a pie to my house.

Last week, I spent the better part of a day writing an essay about the Undershaw situation that never saw the light of blog. Conan Doyle's former home is now the focal point of some ill will in among the fans of the author, and yet another article showed up about it yesterday: "Is Undershaw a House of Cards?" by Luke Kuhns. I suppose the title refers to the possibility it could all come tumbling down, and not that willful, corrupt polticians are involved, as in either of the House of Cards TV shows, and looking at the pictures that accompany Kuhns' article, one can see that there is that danger.

Undershaw is a house ravaged by time and neglect already. Its clock is ticking, and, unfortunately, it seems that those who would like to preserve it could very well cause its collapse by trying too hard to control how it passes into the future.

It's not an issue that is new to us in Sherlock Holmes fandom. If you don't count religions as fandoms, we're perhaps the oldest game out there, and we've seen our share of those who would attempt to freeze a moment in amber, keeping some aspect of the past alive well past its enjoyment expiration date. It can be as simple as taking up a credo of "No one will ever do X as well as Y did," and refusing to take in anything new in that field. Or it can be a ambitious as attempting to institutionalize one's own view of what Sherlockian culture should be.

It can be the work of our inner child, shouting, "Again! Again!" one too many times after a moment of great fun. It can be the work of our inner ancient, fighting to shape some sort of legacy to outlive our frail and ephemeral forms. The motives are quite natural and can even be noble, when one truly is trying to give something to others . . . note I said give something to others. Whether or not they take it is still up to them.

Because as we move into the future, we tend to only carry those things with us that are of use to us, in the world in which we currently exist. Conan Doyle's home, still standing in some form, can be a beacon, a touchstone, a wonderful thing. Conan Doyle's restored kitchen cupboards, exactly as they were when he lived there? Not seeing a lot of good in those.

Not far from Peoria is the town of Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain's boyhood home has entertained sight-seers for over a hundred years. Mark Twain is like America's Shakespeare. (Hey, we're a young country, we take what we can get!) But England already had a Shakespeare, as well as just about every great name in English literature, for obvious reasons. Conan Doyle doesn't exactly have the rarity and tourist value of a . . . well, let's be blunt, a Sherlock Holmes . . . or a Mark Twain. If there was money in selling tickets to Undershaw, it wouldn't be in the shape it's in now.

But sometimes, we can carry the past forward into the future in a way that's still meaningful, with a few necessary modifications. The steamboat that runs out of Mark Twain's hometown, for example, has a diesel engine. Steam boilers would take far too much maintenance to provider all of the riverboating joy that that steamboat brings to tourists all summer long on the mighty Mississippi. Undershaw could still have meaning and importance with the changes that putting a school on those grounds might entail. And do good work besides.

I will admit to being far from conservative. I enjoy change, perhaps a little too much. So you really shouldn't take my opinions on preservation of historical records. (Honestly? I even think the B.S.I. archives at Harvard are a bit over-the-top.) But in recognizing my own prejudices, I also know that there's a flip side to that coin -- those who enjoy a perpetual state of sameness a little too much. Our best path always falls somewhere in between.


  1. I totally agree with what you're saying here. History is important, but we can't preserve everything; we need to make room for tomorrow's history. And yes, ACD doesn't have the draw of Holmes for the unwashed masses, sad but true.

    Thanks for the link; it's a truly sad story. ACD would heartily approve turning Undershaw into a school. I don't know WHAT the UPT people are thinking.

  2. "...we tend to only carry those things with us that are of use to us, in the world in which we currently exist." That's just a lovely notion, well put. Funny how an unexpected bit of truth can make you stop and smile.

    As a guy who spent a couple years chasing down artifacts for a cultural heritage interpretive project, I understand the allure of preserving what came before. Nothing connects us to the past like a physical object.

    But I also see the need to let go. You can't reanimate a corpse. If the house is dead, let it be buried. Collect all the telling photos and a few meaningful artifacts, and put them on display.

    And if you want to sell splinters of the place for a couple bucks plus shipping to raise money for literacy, or medical research, do it. I suspect a lot of fans would approve.